High Peaks To Red Rock: Riding The Rails From Colorado To Utah

Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah is known for its otherworldly desert landscape carved by the Colorado River

In late October, I found myself Colorado-bound and on my way to Denver. The Mile High City was the starting point for a trip encompassing many memorable adventures in the Rockies and a splendid train journey aboard the legendary Rocky Mountaineer—and yes, the scenery is every bit as breathtaking as you might have imagined. With stops at Glenwood Springs and finally Moab, Utah—the Gateway to the American Southwest—the historical narrative was continually shaping the landscape: notorious gunslinger and gambler Doc Holliday, a former resident of Colorado’s “Land of Water,” and Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch Gang connected to Canyonlands.

Denver: Mile-High Magic

Denver’s nickname is the “Mile-High City” as its official elevation is one mile (5,280 feet) above sea level

With its mixture of lovely old buildings and high-gloss modern skyscrapers, Denver is made for exploring, and it has a fabulous food scene and vibrant districts. In particular, I enjoyed the Dairy Block in the Lower Downtown—LoDo to the locals. Once home to Windsor Dairy, the neighbourhood continues the tradition of quality and craftsmanship with creative cuisine and cocktails, an impressive food hall, and local boutiques. I also visited the Denver Art Museum, which is a spectacular building in itself. The Russells in Denver, 1921, presents 18 works by Charles M. Russell and a fabulous collection of bronzes and paintings dating back to the 1880s.

Union Station is perhaps one of downtown’s iconic spots, the renovated 1914 Beaux-Arts train station boasting 10 chef-owned restaurants and bars, specialty stores, a lovely whole foods market, and the 112-room Crawford Hotel. Rather fortuitously, this was also a meeting point for many of the tours I embarked on. Do drop into the Pig Train for your pick of specialty coffees and pastries!

Union Station boasts an array of Denver’s top restaurants, bars, and shops in addition to The Crawford Hotel

My initial base in Denver was the Warwick Hotel, which, while situated at the far end of the city, is easy to reach. Just hop on the free 16th Street Mall Ride on the Hybrid Shuttle Bus, and it will take you almost to the door. Still, being in any big city, it’s always nicer to be in the heart of the action, and the boutique Thompson Hotel, where I also spent two nights, is located only a few blocks from Union Station.  

Peaks & Trails: Rocky Mountain Majesty

It was an early start for our first adventure, and we headed out of Denver for our Rocky Mountain National Park Hiking Tour. We passed the town of Boulder with its pretty low-rise red rock buildings before landing in Lyons for refreshments and some of the best cinnamon rolls I have ever tasted. Our onward journey towards the park was nothing short of magical. We were surrounded by mountains, and there seemed to be prairie dogs popping up in the nearby fields at every turn. Then a large herd of elk travelling with their young crossed our path, so we stopped for a moment to take in the scene.

A colourful foothills town just north of Boulder, Lyons’ West Main Street is lined with inviting shops and local restaurants

Once we arrived at the park, a nice, easy 25-minute hike took us to the Alberta Falls. This sparkling beauty thunders down a narrow canyon on Glacier Creek, and it happens to be an excellent spot to enjoy a relaxing picnic. Going back along the same route will take you to Bear Lake. It’s a leisurely amble that families can also indulge in, and if the weather cooperates, the reflections in the water will leave you happily snapping away with your camera. The mirror effect of the Ponderosa pine trees surrounding the lake and views of Hallett Peak and the Continental Divide left our group mesmerised.  

Formed by ice-age glaciers, the stunning Bear Lake sits at an elevation of 9,450 feet in the Rocky Mountain National Park

The following day I ventured out on our Denver, Red Rocks and Beyond tour, our initial stop after a short 25-minute drive, the Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Famous for its concert experiences—the first rock band to perform here was the Beatles—the park is well worth a passing visit. Also a sacred place, this is the traditional territory of the Ute, Cheyenne and Arapahoe, and located at 6,450 feet above sea level, the views are spellbinding. You should definitely stop by the adjoining Hall of Fame museum as it houses exhibits on some of Colorado’s most famous musicians including, John Denver, Judy Collins, and Philip Bailey. Outside you will find a large bronze statue of John Denver himself, called Spirit—a fitting tribute to a man who played here several times over the course of his life.

Located at the Colorado Music Hall of Fame at Red Rocks, Spirit is a 2002 bronze sculpture depicting John Denver by American sculptor Sue DiCicco,

After hopping back on the vehicle we then visited Evergreen, a mountain village that was once home to country music singer, Willie Nelson. While the musician wasn’t able to spend much time here due to touring, you can see why he found the area so inspirational as it is surrounded by stunning scenery. Our trip to the charming town was followed by a further stop at Lookout Mountain. Where the west lives on, this is the location for the tombstone of William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, and taking you back to the country’s frontier days, there is a museum on site dedicated to his life. Golden’s highest peak and standing at more than 7,300 feet above the city on a clear day you might well be able to see over Colorado and North Wyoming and to the east Kansas and North East Nebraska. Sadly for me, the clouds had snuck in when I reached the top, but our lucky streak with the wildlife held out for a second time on our journey back to Denver with a large herd of bison stopping us in our tracks.

The grave of Buffalo Bill Cody is situated atop Lookout Mountain near Golden, Colorado

Scenic Splendour On The Tracks: All Aboard The Rocky Mountaineer

The Rocky Mountaineer is a truly special way to travel, and after being waved off by the Rocky Mountaineer team—a lovely tradition that is in place at every station—we were off down the tracks.

The “crème de la crème” of train travel in North America, the Rocky Mountaineer is the most luxurious way to ride the rails on the continent

The Rockies to the Red Rocks, the company’s newest route, would take us from Denver, Colorado, to Moab, Utah, and the four staff members who joined us made it an entertaining journey as they added a compelling narrative to the breathtaking window music unfurling before us. Ever-changing, the landscapes transformed from dramatic canyons and rushing rivers to mountain vistas and natural sandstone landscapes. We also enjoyed the benefits of Silverleaf Plus, an enhanced experience with exclusive access to the lounge cars, locally sourced wine pairings, and an additional dedicated host and bar where you can order signature handcrafted cocktails.

From canyons to deserts through to vivid red sandstone contrasting against blue skies, the stunning Rockies to the Red Rocks Rocky Mountaineer journey features impressive scenery all the way

On reaching Glenwood Springs, a former rough and tumble frontier town, we took a tour courtesy of a member of the Rocky Mountaineer team who happens to be a local. And, of course, there are plenty of stories to tell. Located between Aspen and Vail, Glenwood is where you will find the World’s Largest Hot Springs Pool. And, from famous to infamous, it’s also the former home of notorious gunslinger, John Henry “Doc Holliday,” who is best known for his involvement with Wyatt Earp and the shootout at the OK Corral. There’s even a Doc Holliday trail that will take you up to Linwood Cemetery—Glenwood’s oldest established cemetery—where you find the tombstones of Doc Holliday and Harvey Logan (alias Kid Curry), reportedly one of the wildest of Butch Cassidy’s outlaw gang, The Wild Bunch. If you don’t mind the slight uphill hike to get there, you will be rewarded with excellent views over the town and the surrounding mountains.

John Henry ‘Doc’ Holliday is buried in the Linwood Pioneer Cemetery on a hillside overlooking the town of Glenwood Springs, Colorado—still a mystery, there is no clear verdict on the exact whereabouts of his body

From an authentic old West Bar to our historic downtown hotel, “The Denver,” it felt as though we had actually travelled back in time, but the comforts here are certainly more in keeping with the modern day. In our two-bedroom suite, each bedroom came complete with new furnishings, and two bathrooms were divided by a door for extra privacy. And let’s not forget Glenwood’s three relaxing hot springs, including Glenwood Hot Springs Pool, Iron Mountain Hot Springs, Yampah Spa, and Vapour Caves, the latter originally used by the Ute Indians for both healing and rituals.  

Red Rock Express: Riding The Rails To Moab

The following day, we were back on the Rocky Mountaineer, early but at a leisurely pace, as all your baggage is handled for you from the beginning to the end of every journey. As we rode to Moab, the landscapes started to look very different, but equally as stunning, with the train riding past mountain vistas, desert cliffs, sandstone mountains, and creeks and canyons. Ruby Canyon was particularly impressive, a natural wonder accessible only by train or via the Colorado River. Stretching for 25 miles, it is named after the vibrant ruby-toned cliffs that line the canyon walls. Once we crossed over from Colorado into Moab, Utah—the gateway to the American Southwest—we were treated to spectacular views of Mount Peale, the highest point of the La Sal Mountains, standing at 12,726 feet.

Ruby Canyon, pictured, is a noteworthy sight along the Rockies to the Red Rocks Rocky Mountaineer route

As we left the train station, and made our way to our hotel, the Hyatt Place, we could already see glimpses of the red rocks of Arches National Park. The incredible views heightened our anticipation for the afternoon’s events, as the park would be our first port of call, Arches, one of Utah’s Mighty Five National Parks.

Moab itself is a lovely, characterful city to walk around, so it’s worth spending some time perusing the small boutiques and lunching at the Moab truck stalls. But it goes without saying that the national parks are the main draw, two out of the five close by.  

Stone Symphony: Exploring Arches National Park

With a driver and guide who also doubled as a bona fide geologist, we set off to explore Arches’ 18-mile road, which winds through the park and its otherworldly red rocks. A little while later, came the audible gasps and wows, almost in unison and at every turn. Park Avenue is a major vista point, followed by the three Gossips and Courthouse Towers, the road crossing vast landscapes dotted with eroded pinnacles.

Arches National Park is internationally known for its namesake arches and stunning red rock scenery

We then made a turnoff leading to The Windows, the first major concentration of arches and spires. Considered by some to be the beating heart of Arches National Park, it’s a particularly scenic location. A famous and very delicate-looking arch is visible from a side road that leads to the historic Wolfe Ranch before continuing onto Fiery Furnace, and past several large arches, and ending at Devils Garden.

Standing at an impressive 128 feet tall, Balanced Rock is currently defying gravity, but in time it could well collapse, like its former sibling the “Chip-Off-the-Old-Block”

Luckily, the largely overcast skies turned to bright sunshine later in the day, and we were blessed with some truly magical photography. Even better, our guide allowed us to exit the vehicle so we could walk around and admire these wondrous rock-hewn structures close up.  

Utah’s Grand Stage: Canyonlands Unveiled

Cutting through layered sandstone to form two deep canyons, the Colorado and green rivers flow together in the heart of the Canyonlands National Park. Large and diverse, the park is divided into three distinctive areas, including Island in the Sky, The Needles, and the Maze. Our first stop was the Dead Horse Point Lookout, an overlook that soars 2,000 feet above the winding Colorado River. Its sheer beauty astounded everyone in our group. Wow was beginning to be a good descriptor of all of Utah thus far, with each tour showcasing the spectacular and the surreal. Next was Grand View Point, which qualifies as perhaps the most stunning vantage point, as we gazed upon a literal maze of canyons carved out by the Colorado and Green Rivers. From here, you can also catch a glimpse of White Rim Road, an unpaved stretch only accessible by hikers and four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Canyonlands National Park encompasses a vast expanse of canyons and intricately sculpted buttes, all shaped by the meandering Colorado River

Affording one of the best views of the Green River, the southwest-facing Green River Lookout has a sandstone viewing area, sparsely decorated with Utah juniper. And the 2,200-foot drop-off to the river below is simply breathtaking. Standing amongst the jagged rocks, I felt a little nostalgic, as not too long ago, in the 1920s, cowboys and outlaws used these same landscapes as their hideouts.

Canyonlands’ Mesa Arch is, without a doubt, one of the spotlight attractions in the Island in the Sky

One of the foremost attractions in the park is the Mesa Arch. The low-sloping arch perfectly frames the snow-capped mountains in the distance, and the east-facing structure is said to be a splendid place for watching sunsets. La Sal Mountains was our final pitstop. A panorama that leaves you feeling somewhat insignificant. Looking east, you can spy the entire range, including Mt. Peale, which had first made its appearance on our Rocky Mountaineer journey.  

Off Road Rapture: Conquering Hell’s Revenge

Of course, the adventure seeker in me couldn’t leave Moab without experiencing the Hell’s Revenge 4×4 trail. It was two hours of pure adrenaline as the 4×4 went up and down the steep ravines and then faster around the sand dunes.

With all the thrills of a roller coaster and akin to rock climbing via hummer, this wild ride offered up some mesmerising views, like this one over the Colorado River

When we reached the Colorado River, the views were awe-inspiring, as was the colour of the river, which was a beautiful sea green. The road that runs along the waterway is classified as one of the most beautiful scenic drives, and from our lofty vantage point I could clearly see why!  

Urban Peaks & City Streets: A Salt Lake Sojourn

A five-hour journey would take us to our final stop, Salt Lake City, where I stayed for two nights. My urban adventures took me first to visit the Tabernacle Choir and then onwards through to several key sites in Utah’s capital.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is a renowned group of 360 singers who are all volunteers and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

While not my first choice as I had planned to visit Antelope Island, listening to the choir was a truly magical experience, and I can honestly say it’s something you should add to your itinerary. We also visited the This Is The Place Heritage Park. Overlooking the city, it doesn’t just boast fabulous views; inside, you’ll find a museum, plenty of gift shops, and sculptures detailing the history of Salt Lake City, or as it also known by the Latter-day Saints, The Crossroads of the West.

A historical monument at the This Is the Place Heritage Park, the This is the Place Monument is named in honour of Brigham Young’s famous statement that the Mormon pioneers should settle in the Salt Lake Valley

The Capitol State Building and the Grand Pacific Union Station, which is now a museum, were more highlights, the latter regularly frequented by a lady in white. The ghost is said to be a common sighting in the Myra Powell Gallery.

Located on a hill overlooking downtown Salt Lake City, Utah’s Capitol building is an elegant architectural masterpiece

Journey’s End

From start to finish my week-long holiday was a wonderful experience filled with evocative landscapes, fascinating history and vibrant cities that were compelling destinations to visit in their own right. Being able to enjoy the stunning scenery from the tracks on the Rocky Mountaineer also made the journey the destination. Whether you are seeking adrenaline-pumping activities or serene natural beauty, the combination of Colorado and Utah promises to be an unforgettable ride through the heart of the American West.

Contact our specialists about crafting your own tailor-made adventure in any one of America’s Mountain States, as we would be delighted to help you plan the holiday of a lifetime. 

For more information on the holidays we offer at Frontier America, and to book, call us on 020 8776 8709 or email us at America@frontier-travel.co.uk. ATOL PROTECTED No 5405 ABTA W3207.